Gatwick; Faulty Smoke Alarm Sparked Emergency

The AAIB has issued a report into an emergency that closed Gatwick Airport for two hours in April 2012. Read the details here.

A perceived emergency aboard a Virgin Atlantic plane which led to the temporary closure of one of the UK's busiest airports came after a faulty smoke detector generated "multiple spurious'' smoke warnings, an accident report has revealed.

Two of the 304 passengers aboard the Florida-bound Airbus A330 aircraft suffered serious injuries during the evacuation of the plane after the pilots returned to Gatwick Airport.

Later examination of the plane and its systems showed the 15 smoke warnings generated during the flight were spurious and there was no evidence of fire, smoke or heat damage, the report by the Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) said.

Flights at Gatwick were suspended for around two hours due to the incident on the morning of April 16, 2012.

There were 13 crew and 304 passengers aboard, including three infants. The AAIB said the crew had the first of the smoke warnings in the rear cargo hold 15 minutes into the flight to Orlando.

The captain elected to return to Gatwick and the crew carried out appropriate emergency drills, including discharging fire extinguishers in the cargo hold, but the smoke warnings continued.

The AAIB said the message that there was smoke in the cargo hold was misunderstood by air traffic controllers at Brest in France, and the message was "corrupted during onward transmission'', leading to Gatwick's rescue and firefighting service positioning fire vehicles at the wrong end of the aircraft.

The report also said that cabin crew reported to the incorrect location on the runway, with the captain instructing them to stand down rather than stand by.

The AAIB said that one of the escape slides did not inflate properly, which meant that exit was unusable. The evacuation was completed in 109 seconds, with most passengers out within a minute.

The report also said there was confusion between the incident commander on the ground and the air traffic control watch manager over the correct status of the incident.

The report went on: "Consequently, there was a delay in passing a message to relevant emergency and support agencies that there had been an evacuation on the runway.''

Immediately after the incident, passengers told of "complete chaos'' on board and "mayhem'' as travellers piled on top of each other at the bottom of the emergency chutes, with 15 people being taken to hospital.

In today's report, the AAIB said the evacuation had "come as a surprise to the cabin crew''. The report went on: "Many passengers were seen to land awkwardly at the bottom of the slide and one lady was observed to fall on to the tarmac, after which passengers following collided into her.

"At one exit, the fireman at the bottom of the slide asked the crew to slow down the rate that passengers were leaving until the blockage at the bottom of the slide could be cleared.

"One man was injured at the bottom of a slide and was being attended by paramedics, which slowed the evacuation until he could be moved.''

The report added that, according to the Gatwick rescue and firefighting service (RFFS), "a number of passengers landed awkwardly at the bottom of the slides and many toppled forward on to the concrete, suffering minor injuries''.

The RFFS information in the report said: "Passengers on the slides were very close to each other and many did not have time to clear the area at the bottom of the slide before being hit by the following passenger.

"At the bottom of one slide, a fireman tried to protect those already lying on the floor from those coming down the slide by lying across the bottom of the slide.''

The AAIB made a number of safety recommendations including calling for visual aids to show passengers, including those with young children, how to use escape devices.